It was just as she wrapped a hand harder around the Observers’ throat and started to detect their psyches within that she heard the words. This disembodied wish that rose up from somewhere and echoed around her as loud as a planet cracking in two.
It was Joseph. And apparently he’d always believed in her.
If you thought hearing his voice would’ve suddenly distracted her from her task, you’d be wrong. It focused her more than anything ever had before. She wrapped her hands even harder around Jerry’s throat. As for Jerry… occasionally she swore she saw glimpses of him. Damn. The kid had to have a psyche like no other. How could he have survived the continuous attack of so many Observers?
Maybe if Jerry had been in control of Sally’s mind from the beginning, they would’ve already won against the Observers.
The point was, a scrap of him remained. Sally didn’t think she could save him, though. Nothing could anymore. His body had been taken to the brink then pushed further. But maybe, when it mattered most, Jerry would be able to rise up and liberate his own mind.
“You will fail. You were always destined to fail. So just fail,” the Observers stammered at her, their voices becoming indistinct. How she could hear them all echoing out of a single throat, she didn’t know. All that really mattered right now was they were on the run. So she continued to squeeze her hands harder against Jerry’s throat.
“Your resistance… it won’t count. The King is almost awake.”
“Even if he arises, I will just go into phase space, and I will wait for him. I will find him, and I will destroy him, once and for all.”
“Can’t be destroyed,” the Observers spluttered, their desperation making their words almost incomprehensible. But she didn’t need to understand every single syllable to get the meaning. It was transferred in Jerry’s increasingly desperate look.
You wouldn’t think that someone could be moved by the raw emotion of an Observer. But Sally was. For a fraction of a second. She wondered who these people had been before they had signed on to the King project. Her race had remarkably long lives. So the Observers would’ve had existences before the twisted destiny they’d chosen. Had they been explorers? Had they been protectors and doctors? What was it about phase space and ascending that had made them forget all of that? Had they simply become bored with the fact they’d explored the entire known universe? Yet if they thought controlling everybody’s minds would cure that, they were wrong.
Sally suddenly caught a glimpse of what it would actually look like to be controlled by the King. Yes, all of those ascendant minds within him would be able to perfectly influence the universe and do what they wanted. But then what? Where would their sense of exploration go? Their sense of mystery? Yes, uncertainty was often a horrible thing. But without it, life would lose its meaning. If every single aspect of one’s existence were controlled, then the creative mind would shut down. There would be no uncertainty to respond to, no challenges to rise above. You would become nothing more than a set of desires that controlled a set of hands that could do as they pleased.
With that knowledge in her heart, she wrapped her fingers harder around the Observers’ throat just as they wrapped Jerry’s fingers harder around hers. She thought she almost heard a crunch in her neck, but she ignored it. She stared on at the Observer with actual compassion opening up in the center of her chest. “The thing you reach toward is not the thing you ultimately want.”
“There will be no more death, no more empty meaninglessness. We will rewrite the rules of this universe. We will control every mind. We do this for you, too. For every useless life that has been crushed under a callous universe’s foot.”
“You were never doing this for the rest of the universe. You’re doing this because you’re too scared to face the fact no matter how powerful the Hendari became, they were still not ultimately in control. Nobody is. You can understand more of this universe. You can create better devices. You can glimpse increasingly greater levels of control. But that control still cannot overcome the inherent instability and uncertainty of reality. And nor should it.”
“You have no wisdom, just a collection of baseless assumptions that comfort you about the fact you will ultimately lose. It is only those who do not have the power to seek greater control that attempt to take comfort in uncertainty. And that is what ultimately makes you weak, Queen. You might have the power to rise up, but you don’t know who your true enemy is. You accept the lot that was given to you, and you don’t strive for anything more. If you had shown this level of power before, the Queen would’ve been accepted into the King. But you did not. Because you are too weak to reach for greatness.”
The only reason Jerry could speak was he was primarily conversing with psychic energy. But the strain of it was becoming all too apparent on the fragile man’s body. The Observers could push and push and push, but there always comes a point where flesh cannot withstand the forces heaped upon it. Right in front of Sally, just as the Observers were taking so much pleasure in snarling out their insults, she watched his lips crack. These fissure lines ran from the left corner of his mouth right up to his nose. It was one of the most disgusting sights she’d ever seen. Long lines of blood pooled down it, looking like the equivalent of ruby tears.
She jerked back, revolted, but still kept her hands around his throat, knowing how important this was, knowing that Joseph was still out there somewhere and she needed to hold on for him.
The Observers snarled, but the move only aggravated that cut, sending yet more blood sliding down it. In a twitch they brought their face close, but she swore she heard something snapping in Jerry’s neck. Yes, the device still embedded in his chest was doing absolutely everything it could to keep him alive, but there comes a time when no matter how hard technology attempts to keep one breathing, the body dies anyway.
But the Observers still couldn’t see the inevitable demise of their host, and kept pushing, even though it hastened their demise. Jerry’s eyes opened wide with their burning fervor, and more cracks appeared over his flesh. It was as if somebody had soaked a sheet in acid. Not all the way through, not until every single fiber disintegrated – just until they were softened and weakened. And now they were poking the equivalent of sticks right through it. As Jerry’s eyes widened once more, and the Observers hissed out their insults, one massive weeping crack ran down from the right corner of his eye all the way to his chin. It looked as if someone was making a slice in an olive to remove the flesh handily from the stone.
“The King will rise. The King will rise,” they said, their voice hitting this frightened pitch, but then one of those voices was just pulled away as easily as someone swatting an irritating fly off the wall.
Sally watched, incapable of turning away, as Jerry’s head was yanked back once more. It couldn’t keep doing this. She swore one of his vertebrae was pulverized. The sound of it was so unique. It was like someone hitting a chunk of eroded plaster with a massive hammer.
His eyes bulged. Then there was another keening, earsplitting cry as the Observer took his very last shriek.
Then nothing – silence descending like a death shroud.
The remaining Observers started to shake, Jerry’s fingers now trembling so badly, even a baby would’ve been able to push them off.
Sally just focused, shoving her hand harder against his throat and pushing her mind in with even more force. “It’s over. The King will never rise. He was never destined to. He is just a parasite, and you are nothing but the blind, stupid slaves who helped him rise.”
“We are loyal. And those who are loyal are always rewarded.”
“That’s not enough to be rewarded. Don’t be naïve. You know how this universe works. You have traveled to the greatest sites and back again. You know every single race. You’ve seen it all. Nowhere is it written that simply because you strive, you will win.”
“We were the greatest power there was. We saw everything. We touched it all.”
“Yes, you did. But why wasn’t glimpsing it enough? Why did you trick yourself into thinking you needed more? You already had more. The Hendari race was untouchable. We had the means to protect ourselves and others. I understood that you still wanted to strive. But you shouldn’t have sought to use the universe as your canvas. You should’ve gone within,” she said, her voice even, but meaning being imparted with every word. “Instead of trying to control and destroy everything you saw, you should’ve realized that your own ego was the final thing you had to protect yourself from.”
With an earsplitting hiss, this pulsing wave struck Jerry. It sent his muscles into convulsions that couldn’t be stopped. They rippled up from the corners of his jaws and across his face like violent tidal waves. Perhaps the Observers were finally realizing what was happening. Their body was degrading, and there was nothing they could do to stop it. While originally Sally had only thought that Gan would die with Jerry, maybe it would affect the rest of the Observers too, because she suddenly heard them all screaming. This might be nothing more than her imagination, but she got the undeniable impression they were like patrons lining up in front of a narrow door, everybody trying to get out of some burning building while they could. But the door was locked.
So Sally locked her fingers harder around Jerry’s neck. She closed her eyes, and she fought.